Aging, Dying, Disasters . . . and Joy
Emily Alone: A Novel
New York: Penguin Group, 2011
Death with Interruptions
Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster
New York: Penguin Books, 2009
I speak fairly often for seniors’ conferences. I used to speak for youth conventions. As a wag has noted, that means I’m still talking to the same people.
Last year I was on the program for two such conferences in Oregon, one at the state convention grounds in the Willamette Valley, the other at Camp WiNeMa on the coast. Since some people attend both gatherings, I protested to the organizers that this was probably not a good idea. “Oh, don’t worry about that, Roy,” a good friend said, “Nobody will remember what you say, anyway.”
Scant comfort, that.
These ongoing assignments prompt me to dip from time to time into books by or about older people. Sometimes it’s the latest research on aging, sometimes ideas for ministering with seniors in churches. It’s almost never fiction.
Emily Alone, though, is a novel. I was told it would offer good insight into what old age is like—as if I needed to have it explained to me.
Anyway, on that recommendation, I picked up Stewart O’Nan’s latest book. The novel focuses on the life of Emily Maxwell, widowed the year before after a decades-long marriage that was good when Henry was alive and became even better in Emily’s remembering. Other characters are best friend Arlene, a retired schoolteacher, who smokes. Emily wishes she wouldn’t. And Rufus, Emily’s terribly pampered dog. Then there’s Margaret, her alcoholic daughter who has been sober now for four years, but will it last? And Kenneth, her responsible but not very exciting son. And the grandchildren.
What is distinctive about the novel is that nothing happens. Well, almost nothing. Emily buys a new car. She and Arlene go to funerals and a flower show. City workers tear up the street in front of the house. They make a terrible racket. Holidays provide get-together-with-the-family opportunities, which are less gratifying than they should be. Rufus becomes grossly overweight; he has a thyroid problem. Emily visits Henry’s gravesite and then goes back to the small town she grew up in to visit her parents’ plots.
There’s more, but it’s all pretty tame stuff. You keep waiting for a major crisis, for some drama. There is none. Oh, Arlene has a slight stroke, but she gets over it. And Emily has some dizzy spells, but they aren’t life threatening.
This is one of least event-filled novels I can remember. Yet I kept reading. There is something about the everydayness of life that is, if not captivating, at least interesting. Reading Emily Alone is like watching a movie in slow motion. Still, O’Nan has captured the essence of the mundane, routine, sometimes boring but in its own way intriguing existence of ordinary people.
Like yours and mine.
What if the Dying Couldn’t Die?
OK, since I’m writing about old people, I might as well go on and talk about death, in this case death as perceived by octogenarian Jose Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, in Death with Interruptions, his 2005 novel.
What if death suddenly stopped
working? What would happen to the growing numbers of sick and dying (but unable to die)? What about those industries dependent on death for a livelihood: the funeral directors, obviously, but also insurance companies, the medical profession, politicians, and religious leaders? It even affects the Mafia, which for a fee takes on a new illicit trade, secretly transporting the nearly dead across the border, where they can die. It’s amazing how much of life is organized around or caters to the dying. But if those who should die can’t . . . what then?
Saramago’s style, as translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, takes some getting used to. It’s dense (with no respect for normal punctuation, sentence structure, and paragraphing), satirical, whimsical (even dryly humorous at times), and deadly serious. The first section deals with death in the abstract, impersonally, as large numbers of residents in this unnamed country don’t die, wreaking havoc with standard operations.
In the second half, though, death (never Death) is personified as a 36-year-old, attractive woman out to get a 50-year-old bachelor cellist who has eluded her grasp, a somewhat predictable love-versus-death match with a less than predictable outcome.
Death with Interruptions does not make my list of the year’s top-10-must-read-books, but if you are in the mood to give a little thought to just how much living is about dying, Saramago’s meditation fills the bill.
Sometimes Gratifying, Sometimes Alarming
Now, lest this month’s column get too depressing, let me tell you about Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. She wants us to know that good times can come out of really bad times after all! Whether the disaster is man-made or natural, human beings can rally, marshal their very limited resources, and create a freer, more benevolent society—if they are left alone to do so. Just don’t let the media, the selfish elitists, the Hollywood filmmakers, and the politicians (who will call in the National Guard, the police, and emergency crews) take over and ruin everything.
Solnit tells the sometimes gratifying, sometimes alarming stories of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, New York and Washington’s 9/11, and New Orleans’s Katrina disaster, among several others. She isn’t blind to the looting, mobs, and other examples of scared or rapacious people on the loose, but her focus is on neighbors helping neighbors, impromptu relief efforts, and spontaneous community organizations that rescue, feed, and house the needy. It is the rich and powerful who panic and ultimately, usually make things worse, wresting control away from the effective grassroots leaders.
Solnit uses a surprising word to describe the people leaping to assist and staying on the job as long as they are needed. She calls all this joy. They forget themselves in service and discover there’s joy in giving. If the disaster brings its own form of Hell, their altruistic response creates a real (if temporary) paradise on earth.
Solnit’s is a decidedly contrarian view. Most of us are predisposed to believe that disaster inevitably brings out the worst in human nature. It can and often does, as the narrative documents. But, the author believes, it also often brings out the very best.
The real disaster, she asserts, is how we live our ordinary lives, pushing and grasping and looking out for number one. When our treacherous systems are disrupted by some overwhelming event, we have a chance, one often taken, to rebuild something kinder, more humane. Disasters can break the grip of our usual money-and-things-over-people mentality. We really can, to our delight, become our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.
“Two things matter most about these ephemeral moments,” she writes. “First, they demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society. Second, they demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness. Thus the startling joy in disasters.”
LeRoy Lawson is professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, international consultant with CMF International, and serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.